Violent crime has been in decline in most of the country since its peaks in the mid-1990s. Several factors have been suggested to explain the decline: changes in police tactics, improvements in economic opportunities in inner cities, and the rise of social services like afterschool programs to provide youth with more constructive options.
Despite these positive developments, the situation has not improved everywhere. Some cities have seen a very sharp decline in violence, while others have seen no change or even a worsening situation.
One approach to violence reduction learns from the lessons of Boston in the late-1990s, a time when the city saw some of the steepest declines in violent crime in the country. The so-called “Boston Miracle” refers to this unprecedented drop in violence, including a period of more than two years where there were no teenage homicide victims in the city. The Boston Miracle focused on the role of young people involved in gang activity, and involved a unique cooperative arrangement between a range of professionals who work with youth: from police to social workers, from Christian ministers to prosecutors.
One necessary factor was a dramatic change in police tactics. According to Harvard’s Christopher Winship, in the late-1980s the Boston police were unprepared for the sudden emergence of gang violence.
Since Boston law-enforcement agencies had not previously dealt with turf-based violence and criminal gang activity, their initial response was inadequate…. Without an in-depth understanding of the problem or a plan of attack, police officers fell back on the aggressive, riot-oriented tactics of the 1960s. In addition, because homicide has traditionally been handled on a case-by-case basis, the police department aimed at making the “big hit” and arresting the “big player,” rather than addressing the group-based nature of gang violence
The police’s aggressive and ineffectual approach quickly alienated the community. It has been estimated that only about 1 percent of the city’s youth are involved in gang activity at any given time, but the police were targeting all youth indiscriminately. Even the police themselves were forced to admit, years later, that racism played an essential role in these aggressive tactics.
It can be almost impossible to investigate gang-related violence without support from the surrounding community. As Winship puts it,
The excesses of the judicial system, both historical and present, have led inner-city minorities to view our criminal justice system as totally lacking in legitimacy. The result: Criminals are often seen as political dissidents and martyrs….When police are unlikely to receive cooperation from residents, the only option has been aggressive tactics that only further alienate community residents.
In the early 1990s, a new regime in the Boston Police wanted to change these tactics, But how could they regain the community’s trust?
At the same time, other community leaders were wrestling with the problem of gang violence. In 1992, at a funeral for a gang member killed in a drive-by shooting, a gunfight broke out between rival gangs in the sanctuary of one of Boston’s largest churches. This incident convinced a number of the city’s prominent ministers that they needed to take a more active role in preventing violence in their community. They founded an organization called the Ten-Point Coalition and began meeting with the families of gang members and patrolling streets where the police were afraid to go.
The police were in need of a mediator with the community, and the Ten-Point Coalition’s ministers were prepared to be that mediator. The police, in partnership with the ministers, as well as prosecutors, the probation department and other community groups, fashioned a new approach to gang violence policing called Operation Ceasefire.
Operation Ceasefire was designed to solve a paradox in the community’s relationship to gangs. On the one hand, community members want to be safe and secure. On the other hand, most gang members are local young people: their own children.
The design of Operation Ceasefire was to offer—via a respected community leader—a bargain to young people involved in gangs. Accepting the bargain would provide the youth with the means to leave the gang: more support in school, access to jobs, afterschool programs, and so forth. The community leaders making the offer had access to these youth that the police lacked, and could make the offer more persuasive. The only condition of acceptance was the avoidance of violence: other criminal activity, such as drug dealing, would be handled normally by police, but violent crime would be met with a coordinated response. If the youth refused the offer and continued to engage in violent activity, then the community would offer their full support to the police in bringing the youth to justice, and police would concentrate their resources on only those offending gangs. Furthermore, cooperation between the various levels of the justice system would ensure the necessary evidence for a conviction.
The program received mixed reactions from the city’s gangs. Some refused the offer, and whole gangs were arrested in sweeps of unprecedented scale. Others accepted the offer, and later reported that they appreciated living in a safer city. But one way or another, violent crime was prevented.
To some extent, this is similar to the implicit offer that society always makes to violent criminals. If you give up violence and cooperate with society, then your community will support you and things will go well for you. But if you cause harm to your community, then no one will support you and you will go to prison. However, when society’s institutions are not functioning properly this implicit social contract begins to unravel. Young people may feel that criminal activity is the only way to get ahead, and their gang is the only one who will support them. When the police use indiscriminate tactics against the whole community, young people may feel it doesn’t matter if they’re in a gang or not—the police will try to incarcerate them anyway. Those already involved with gangs may feel they have no choice but to continue with the course they’ve chosen.
Operation Ceasefire was effective because it made this social contract explicit. However, the program’s effectiveness has been inconsistent over the years. Efforts to apply the lessons learned in Boston to other cities have not always been successful. Even in Boston, the program’s success has waxed and waned with the commitment of its participant organizations.
In order for this social contract to work, the police must hold up their end of the bargain and respect the community. A racist, vindictive or disorganized police force will be unable to support the social contract. Furthermore, the rest of society must be able to make the peaceful alternative convincing. Ultimately, young people must actually believe that if they work hard in school and pursue a lawful career that they will be successful. A failing school system or a failing economy for people from a low-income background will also destroy this social contract.
Operation Ceasefire’s grand bargain was effective, for a while. Whether it will be effective going forward remains to be seen.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Why do you think it’s so hard for criminal justice and community agencies to cooperate? Do you have any personal experience with these groups that might explain the difficulty?
- Boston is a fairly small city, and youth gangs in Boston are often less organized. Do you think the program would be as successful in cities with larger and more organized gangs?
- What do you think are the most important factors in determining whether a young person is able to believe in their own future? How would you describe the thought process of a young person who doubts whether school and career have anything good to offer them?
- The Boston Miracle, formalized as Operation Ceasefire, was a cooperative arrangement between the criminal justice system and community groups that led to a marked decline in rates of youth violence.
- The program targeted the police’s efforts on the most dangerous youth, rejecting the aggressive and untargeted tactics that had previously alienated the community.
- The key to the program was the high degree of cooperation between a wide range of community stakeholders. The difficulties in achieving this cooperation have limited the program’s success over time.
Christopher Winship and Jenny Berrien (1999). Boston Cops and Black Churches. Public Interest, 136, 52-68.
Anthony A. Braga, David M. Kennedy, Anne M. Piehl and Elin J. Waring (2001). Reducing Gun Violence: The Boston Gun Project’s Operation Ceasefire. Washington: National Institute of Justice.
Anthony A. Braga and Christopher Winship (2005). Creating an Effective Foundation to Prevent Youth Violence: Lessons Learned from Boston in the 1990s. Rappaport Institute Policy Brief, PB-2005-5.
Anthony A. Braga and Christopher Winship (2006). Partnership, accountability and innovation: clarifying Boston’s experience with pulling levers. In David Weisburd and Anthony A. Braga (Eds.), Police Innovations: Contrasting Perspectives (169-187). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Anthony A. Braga, David Hureau and Christopher Winship (2008). Losing Faith? Police, Black Churches, and the Resurgence of Youth Violence in Boston. Ohio State Law Journal, 6(1), 141-172.
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